Mike Rowbottom

There is much laying on of hands at an Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) General Assembly - especially when International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach is around.

If you were a cynical person, you might interpret his opening speech to the assembled National Olympic Committees in Doha thus: "Sort yourselves out, or we’ll stop your money."

Of course, the matter was put more elegantly, and cogently, by Mr Bach, as he sought to re-assert the Olympic USP in the face of the frequent political irruptions which are starting to erode the idea of free and open competition worldwide.

Let’s keep politics out of sport, let sports keep out of politics. If we don’t take the idea seriously, why should Governments? These were the big messages from IOC to ANOC.

But there is some absurdity in that position, given that the two days on which the Assembly took place, and to some extent the week preceding it, during which the ANOC World Beach Games had a genuinely satisfactory launch, hummed from morning to evening with politics – albeit with a small “p”.

The Olympic Games are a game, and if you want to continue in the former you have to play the latter.

One of Bach’s most repeated soundbites in recent years is the one about the need to change before being changed. Get on the front foot. Sock it to ‘em.

Among those present in Doha who have listened most closely to that message is Riccardo Fraccari, President of the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC).

WBSC President Riccardo Fraccari believes the newly developed Baseball5 can help globalise the sport ©Getty Images
WBSC President Riccardo Fraccari believes the newly developed Baseball5 can help globalise the sport ©Getty Images

This ebullient and energetic Italian has played the game with huge energy and resourcefulness in recent years, succeeding in bringing baseball and softball, newly combined under the WSBC banner, back onto the Olympic programme in Tokyo next year after baseball was dropped following Beijing 2008.

Moderating that joy are two things. Firstly, as one of the five additional sports for Tokyo that were added to the core programme, baseball/softball doesn’t receive IOC money. And secondly, rather more importantly, baseball/softball has not found a place in the Paris 2024 Games, where the number of places given over to team sports - and the fact that the sport is not regarded in France with the same fervour as it is in Japan - meant that it was once more out of the picture.

In, out, shake it all about. The looming arrival of the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles will surely see baseball softball back in the fold in another loving heartland. But meanwhile, Fraccari and co have been attending to business.

Five years ago, as he championed the Olympic cause of the newly established WBSC, Fraccari said: "There is no other sporting/cultural platform, no matter how great and important it may be, that can be compared to the Olympic Games and the locomotive effect that they can bring to a sport.”

Five years on, the desire to be coupled to that particular locomotive remains - but the WSBC has developed its own internal motor in the form of Baseball5.

The WBSC site contains as succinct a description as I can find: "Baseball5 is a new five-on-five, five-inning street version of the game of baseball/softball that can be played anywhere. This faster urban discipline will help drive baseball and softball to new places not possible before.”

And just in case anyone was wondering how this might fit into the Olympic Movement’s framework in future years, the tick boxes in terms of Bach’s much vaunted Agenda 2020 initiative are made very clear by the additional slogans:

"No construction or dedicated venue needed…All you need is a ball…Adapts to any environment…Skills transfer to traditional baseball/softball…”

The site attests to rapid expansion. This month - “Quebec holds first historic tournament”. Last month - "Zambia stages University Championship".

One of Baseball5's most recent mainfestations was in the Zambian University Championship in Lusaka ©WBSC
One of Baseball5's most recent mainfestations was in the Zambian University Championship in Lusaka ©WBSC

On September 5, a report ran on Iran staging its first Baseball5 National Championship.

"One year after the introduction of Baseball5 in the country, when the WBSC and Cuban experts staged a seminar in Iran, the Iran Baseball and Softball Association recently concluded its first National Baseball5 Championship," it read.

Valerio Cianfoni, WBSC's Public Relations and Project Manager, describes the initiative in terms of the "desire of the WBSC to increase the accessibility of the sport and to be able to bring baseball/softball in places where it was not possible before".

"The idea is following in the footsteps of the broader trend within the Olympic Movement," Cianfoni adds. "Trying to take sports out of the big venues and closer to the people. Baseball5 takes inspiration from a street game mostly played in Cuba and the Caribbean region.”

There are also natural variants in Venezuela, and throughout Southeast Asia. Research was done. Rules were formed. Competitions were initiated.

"WBSC’s vision is to reach one billion people in the next decade,” Cianfoni added. "And we think that we cannot achieve that without a discipline that is more accessible and I think Baseball5 will be instrumental to this.

"A shorter term goal is the inclusion of Baseball5 in major multi-sport events and the legitimacy of its own discipline. And I think we are working in the right direction here.”

The main obvious difference between baseball/softball and baseball5 is that the latter can be played in a small area, within 21 metres, and requires no bat, with the ball being struck by the hand. Nor is there a pitcher and every ball is a play.

Baseball last featured at the Olympic Games at Beijing 2008 ©Getty Images
Baseball last featured at the Olympic Games at Beijing 2008 ©Getty Images

The Olympic buzz of gender equality is also happily accommodated. "With Baseball5 we are developing a game that rewards skills over strength," Cianfoni added. "To put it in simple terms, this allows us to play boys and girls together. I think we will go far with this format."

Shortly after all the ANOC delegates had filed out of the hall after day two of the General Assembly, Fraccari took some extra time to reflect upon his sport’s fortunes in the face of what has been pitched to them in the last few tumultuous years.

"I make a picture of how one international federation can grow,” he told insidethegames.  “I made a parallel with a train. The train is the wagon and the locomotive. If you find a locomotive the train is running. Now I think inside our federation we found the locomotive.

"When we started this Baseball5 discipline we were thinking how to better approach the youth.

"Because baseball is a very organised sport, not easy to start, many materials and a field are needed."

The WBSC first looked at forms of game that had grown up naturally around the world.

"We saw that they play similar in the other countries,” Fraccari said. "So this means that our sport is really coming from the street, from the natural playing of the kids. For kids it is natural to throw something, to catch something.

"So we studied this and we made official rules for out new game. Practically we take out the two most difficult elements - one is the field, second we don’t have a pitcher. And we don’t take the material.

"If I start to play baseball now in India or Africa - before, to create one pitcher I need 15, 20 years working. With Baseball5, I take out this problem and they can compete in India and Africa and they can compete with the United States tomorrow.

"We are putting together tournaments with prize money. We had the first one in Cartagena de Indias in Colombia and was huge, fantastic.

"Now we are working for Dakar, the 2022 Youth Olympic Games next year we have the World Cup in Mexico.

"It is the secret, in my opinion, for globalising our sport, especially in the countries where it is difficult to find materials and a big field."

Baseball5's emphasiis on skills rather than strength means it is a naturally mixed gender sport ©WBSC
Baseball5's emphasiis on skills rather than strength means it is a naturally mixed gender sport ©WBSC

Fraccari continued: "So the locomotive for us is that now we are able to catch the attention of the youth, we have the locomotive that is strong competition that is able to produce money for the development.

"For Tokyo we don’t receive any money. But I repeat, I create inside, internally, the sustainability of the sport.

"Of course, the Olympics is fundamental for the federation. And I fight for baseball and softball to be permanently at the Olympics.

"But the strength in my opinion of our federation is to be independent of the money received from the IOC. There is something more we can do for our development, and this is what we want to achieve during this year.

"We want to globalise our sport to give it sustainability.

"We are still engaged 100 per cent with the IOC. We agree and we share the Agenda 2020 and we follow that. And Baseball5 is really in line with Agenda 2020.

"I agree with President Bach when he says – either we change, or we be changed. The Agenda 2020 says we have to change and modernise the Olympics, and I completely share that idea.”

So does Fraccari see Baseball5 feeding back into the Olympics at some point?

"It’s like basketball 3x3, it fulfils all the indications of Agenda 2020 – gender equality, low costs, rapid, easy, youth appeal," he responds. 

"So in my opinion - yes."